Roundtable: Chiefs training camp primer

Jul 27, 2013; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs players work across the field during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 27, 2013; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs players work across the field during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

An annual agonizing wait from the end of organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp will soon end, as Chiefs training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., replaces the doldrums of summer.

Rookies and quarterbacks report on July 20, and they’ll have three straight morning practices by the time veterans report on July 23. The first practice open to the public is set for July 24.

Position battles will help shape the initial depth chart, which is scheduled for release the week of the first preseason game on Aug. 7.

But the Chiefs have other personnel situations to work through before kicking off the regular season.

And with $9.4 million in current cap space, the scenarios include potentially addressing quarterback Alex Smith and outside linebacker Justin Houston, both of whom enter the final year of respective contracts. Houston’s status carries significance because he chose to not attend voluntary OTAs and missed the mandatory minicamp, signaling the possibility of a late reporting or holdout for training camp.

[UPDATE, July 16: Houston is expected to report for camp]

In the meantime, here are five additional areas with training camp in mind as discussed among the staff.

• Identifying the biggest question mark in training camp. 

Herbie Teope, publisher: The offensive line falls in the spotlight, but that side of the ball didn’t blow a 38-10 third-quarter lead to the Indianapolis Colts en route to allowing the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Safeties Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps, and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Dunta Robinson are gone from the 2013 roster. While the Chiefs are comfortable with Husain Abdullah and Sanders Commings at free safety, apprehension lingers over the cornerback position where Sean Smith, Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker are set to compete for starting jobs.

The Chiefs currently have 11 cornerbacks on the roster, including third-round pick Phillip Gaines. The cornerback position needs stability considering the opposing quarterbacks on the 2014 schedule.

Matt Derrick, associate editor: Of all the questions facing the team, the status of the passing game is most compelling to me. It is absolutely reasonable to expect a big leap forward in the second year of the West Coast offense. OTAs suggested Smith is more comfortable at quarterback and the tight ends received rave reviews.

Is that the case or are they mirages?

We should have early returns by the second preseason game. All the AFC playoff-caliber teams can throw the ball and put points on the board when needed. The Chiefs have to be able to do that, too. I have faith in Smith, but the question marks are the tight ends and receivers.

Desmond Bailey, contributing writer: The offensive line is somewhat unsettling. Eric Fisher is pegged as the starting left tackle. While the assumption is he’ll be more comfortable at his natural position, it’s a new spot for him at the pro level.

Also, the starting right guard position will feature a new face. Based on OTAs and minicamp, rookie Zach Fulton is making a push. But the fact remains he’s a rookie on a very young line.

The unit as a whole will need to work quickly to build the cohesiveness required to excel against what appears as a tough 2014 schedule.

Stephen Brown, contributing writer: The Chiefs offensive line leaves questions after losing starting left tackle Branden Albert, and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. Albert’s departure was a quite one, but Pro Football Focus ranked Albert as their ninth-best pass-blocking tackle.

Rookie guard Zach Fulton, who received repetitions with the first-team offense in OTAs and minicamp, could fill the vacancy at right guard. Coach Andy Reid said Eric Fisher (shoulder) will be ready for camp, and there’s hope Fisher will thrive at left tackle, which is his natural position.

No group touches the team more, but a lot depends on if Fisher plays well. Camp will help decipher the group, but it will probably come down to the regular season to gauge this group.

Jul 28, 2013; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) carries the ball during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 28, 2013; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) carries the ball during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

• Name the position with a high comfort level.

Derrick: There are gripping questions everywhere except running back. The Chiefs have one of the best running backs in the league with Jamaal Charles, a dependable backup in Knile Davis and plenty of additional depth and flexibility.

If De’Anthony Thomas plays out of the backfield occasionally and a sleeper such as Joe McKnight continues to develop in the system, the Chiefs could have the best running back stable in the league. Fullback Anthony Sherman is a big part of the running game as well, and is coming off a very solid season.

Bailey: The running back position seems quite solid. Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis are locked in as the No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Behind them, Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight and undrafted rookie Charcandrick West will compete for the No. 3 spot.

The position should be strong regardless how it falls out. Gray and McKnight offer experience, but keep a close eye on West. Though the odds aren’t in his favor to make the final 53-man roster, West could earn a practice squad seat with his versatility and blocking skills.

Brown: Alex Smith and the quarterback position. Smith looked sharp, moved well and handled coach Andy Reid’s system like he understands it.

Reid worked on the long ball during OTAs and minicamp, and that wasn’t the case early last year. But Smith and his receivers appeared to have chemistry. Camp could be just a formality for Smith because he looks ready now.

Rookie quarterback Aaron Murray is also reassuring. Murray had a rough start with rookie OTAs, but he learned as practices progressed. Quarterback Tyler Bray had his moments, but Murray showed flashes of something better when minicamp was through. With Murray, the Chiefs might have a future at quarterback for a change.

Add Chase Daniel, who performed well against the San Diego Chargers in the Chiefs final game of 2013, and this position appears set. 

Teope: Some could argue this selection is premature considering the pads haven’t come on. But signs point to the tight end position being what the Chiefs thought they had in 2013 entering training camp.

Anthony Fasano anchors a group consisting of Travis Kelce, Sean McGrath, Demetrius Harris and Richard Gordon. The Chiefs must feel good about Kelce’s knee considering the team didn’t address the position during the draft or free agency, and Harris is emerging.

The tight end corps has a year of experience in coach Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense, and that factor further boosts confidence of a rebound campaign.

• What is the most intriguing training camp battle? 

Bailey: Placekicker is the most intriguing battle because it’s the only position where the incumbent veteran starter could realistically lose his job to a rookie.

Succop has been solid, but he’s scheduled to make $1.95 million in 2014, according to NFLPA records. Cairo Santos, who signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, is scheduled to earn $420,000 in 2014.

Taking all those factors into consideration, one suddenly gets the sense Succop will be fighting for his livelihood.

Teope: How the Chiefs ultimately list running back De’Anthony Thomas remains to be seen. Still, that scenario fascinates because he affects four battle fronts: No. 3 running back, slot wide receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner.

Thomas’ presence immediately put players hoping to carve a niche at those positions before the draft on notice. The list includes running back Joe McKnight and wide receiver Weston Dressler, both of whom can return punts or kickoffs.

For his part, McKnight knows he’ll have to excel on special teams.

Brown: Tight end Travis Kelce vs. Demetrius Harris. Kelce moved well in limited action at minicamp, but Harris is on the rise.

When it came to the big catches, Harris usually had at least one each practice. It’s easy to like Harris, because he’s learned a lot and it shows. Harris is a great target with his athletic ability and 6-foot-7 frame. Still, before Kelce’s injury, Harris also flashed in practice last offseason by making his share of acrobatic catches.

This position features good battles with Kelce looking ready for camp.  Anthony Fasano, who missed six games in 2013 with an ankle injury and a concussion, looks fresh and ready for camp. Sean McGrath, who drew starts last season, is also an option.

Barring injuries, the Chiefs have a full cupboard at tight end.

Derrick: The most compelling battles are along the offensive line. The Chiefs have only two starters returning at the same position as last year. Eric Fisher has to prove that he is healthy and can make the move to left tackle.

The Chiefs could keep anywhere from eight to 10 offensive linemen, and right now I think there are only five who can feel safely on the team. Throw in rookies Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and there are a lot of faces and compelling stories to follow.

Jun 17, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back De'Anthony Thomas (1) during minicamp at University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 17, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back De’Anthony Thomas (1) during minicamp at University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

• Who makes the biggest rookie splash? 

Brown: Running back De’Anthony Tomas has the abilities to strike immediately. He’s fast, has soft hands, confident and can do multiple things well. Thomas said on’s Rookie Confessional he wants to show in camp he’s “a player nobody’s seen” before on the field.

Thomas has the desire to be great, and has the gifts to back it up. He missed OTAs due to Oregon’s quarter system, but the Chiefs wasted little time inserting Thomas with the first-team offense at various positions when he returned for mandatory minicamp.

Thomas can be an instant hit in an offense catering to mismatches and flooding a defense with too many receivers.

Derrick: If it’s not De’Anthony Thomas, that’s a bad sign. If Thomas is the talent the Chiefs think he is, he should get plenty of looks on offense and in the return game.

He’s the Chiefs’ best opportunity to create mismatches on defense.

Outside linebacker Dee Ford should primarily be a backup and situational pass rusher this year, which could limit his potential impact. Guard Zach Fulton could be a big surprise on the offensive line.

But with need for a slot receiver and a punt returner, Thomas has a chance to shine.

It’s a lot to expect of a rookie to pick up the West Coast offense quickly and excel, but the Chiefs need Thomas to do it.

Bailey: The multi-talented De’Anthony Thomas gets the nod here due to versatility, explosiveness and having more opportunities to impact the game. Based on how Dexter McCluster was utilized last year, it’s not difficult to envision Thomas lining up as a receiver, running back or return specialist.

With his speed and big-play capability, Thomas is a threat to score any time he touches the football, which is expected quite often.

Teope: Time to go a different direction from the obvious. The Chiefs drafted defensive back Sanders Commings in 2013 with a view for production given his 4.41 40-yard dash speed.

But his rookie season never got off the ground after a training camp collarbone injury prompted the Chiefs to initially place Commings on injured reserve with a designation to return. The Chiefs activated Commings during the Week 10 bye, and he appeared in two games before landing on season-ending injured reserve in Week 13.

The former Georgia Bulldog, who measures 6-0, 223 pounds, is healthy and appears primed to contribute in 2014 for what amounts to a mulligan rookie campaign.

• Who must step up in training camp? 

Teope: Defensive lineman Vance Walker, who can play 3- or 5-technique defensive end, needs to prove he’s worth the three-year, $13 million free-agent contract he signed in March. The Chiefs like his versatility to play inside or outside, and Walker could also spell defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

Still, Walker spent a majority of OTAs and minicamp running with the second-team defense as he acclimates to the defensive scheme. That role could change when the pads come on for training camp.

Meanwhile, defensive end Allen Bailey took first-team OTA and minicamp snaps at left defensive end, a position vacated by Tyson Jackson’s free-agent departure.

Derrick: Dwayne Bowe seems like the perennial answer to the question of who needs to step up. He’s one of the highest paid receivers in the league, and he has to play like it. It would be great to see one of the tight ends break out and emerge as a consistent threat in the passing game. But the Chiefs need Bowe to play to his potential.

Close runner-ups are Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker. Both are going to get a chance to play at corner, and the Chiefs secondary struggled last year. If Cooper and Parker are going to be starting corners, they need to take big leaps this season.

Brown: Cornerback Sean Smith ran with the second-team defense the final week of OTAs following an arrest of an alleged DUI. Cornerbacks Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker received the majority of repetitions with the first-team defense. Parker is an option to start, and coach Andy Reid left the possibility open heading into camp.

Smith represents veteran leadership, which is valuable with the Chiefs tweaking the cornerback position, but his off-the-field behavior could cost him. The Chiefs were 25th against the pass last season (247.6 yards allowed per game), and Smith was part of that problem. With rookie Phillip Gaines in the mix, the Chiefs are looking for answers.

Bailey: Third-year running back Cyrus Gray is in for a tremendous uphill fight to hold his job. He’ll have to take his game to an entirely new level to stave off Joe McKnight and Charcandrick West for the No. 3 spot behind Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis.

Of the players competing for the No. 3 running back spot, Gray is the only holdover from the previous Scott Pioli regime. Therefore, Gray arguably doesn’t have special favor with the current coaching staff.